Most men think of belts as a necessity to hold up their pants, but belts were worn as a fashionable accessory by men long before they wore trousers. Back in the Bronze Age, belts encircled robes, tunics, and other draped items of clothing. Japanese obis, worn with traditional kimonos, are also a kind of buckleless belt.
As the use of belts evolved, they were worn increasingly by men in military settings, with the intention of emphasizing the trimness of their waists—a tight belt was an indication that a man was fit, strong, and able to put up a good fight. Warriors, knights, and soldiers in cultures all over the world sported elaborate belt buckles to indicate their rank and status. In some cases, belts were also used to hang weapons, tools, pouches, or the precursors to wallets, which were necessary before the invention of pockets.
For women, belts went in and out of fashion. In the Middle Ages, they served the functional purpose of holding small purses and fans, and in the Renaissance, fashionable ladies wore dainty, decorative belts and buckles.
At the end of the Victorian Era, the belt buckle flourished as a decorative-art object. European artisans who subscribed to the principles of Art Nouveau produced metalwork buckles with delicate, sinuous lines. In the American Southwest, members of tribes such as the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni produced silver concho belts and buckles adorned with stones like turquoise for the gawking, railroad-riding tourists to take home. Concho belts are still popular today, although they are often made of cheaper metals.
In general, though, belts were a poor cousin to suspenders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because Victorian fashion demanded that men wear their pants high, belts could not reasonably hold them in place. Around the 1920s, though, it became stylish to wear pants at a more natural waistline, and then men started to turn to belts as a means for keeping their britches up. Even the denim dungarees manufactured by Levi Strauss and Company, which was founded in the 1880s, took until 1922 to feature belt loops.
For women, belts have always been more about adornment than utility. In ladies’ fashion, belts have been used to emphasize or create the appearance of small waists, to spruce up a little black dress, or to coordinate or accent separates. At the turn of the 20th century, women took to boned silk sashes with V-shapes at the front to flaunt their tiny waistlines and complement the trend for blouses and long skirts. Today, women also wear belts on the hips (a trend made popular in the ’60s), or just below the bust line.
Leather, which became a common material for shoes and belts around the turn of the 20th century, is perhaps the most popular material for belts, but belts have been made of every material imaginable—alligator, snakeskin, metal mesh, chain links, beads, canvas, nylon, fake leather, and plastics, to name but a few. Some leather or fake-leather belts are braided, hand-tooled, or studded...
Fashion trends for both men and women have vacillated between wide and skinny belts, as well as belts that can be double looped or tied instead of fastened with buckle. Belts can be embroidered, ruched, beaded, and cutout. Some are adorned with charms, beads, sequins, rhinestones, or bells. High-end designers like Judith Leiber and Christian Dior used belts to extend their fashion statements.
Western-style hand-tooled belts, sometimes with words or names embossed on them, probably came into fashion at the same time Hollywood started producing Western films, making big cowboy belt buckles all the rage among country singers, rodeo competitors, and weekend two-steppers.